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Baker Knight

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Biography

Perhaps best known for penning the Elvis Presley hit "The Wonder of You," Baker Knight ranks among the most prolific songwriters of the rock & roll era, authoring well over a thousand songs in a variety of musical idioms. Born Thomas Baker Knight, Jr. in Birmingham, AL, on July 4, 1933, he lost his father at the age of six, and spent much of his childhood in the care of a series of relatives. After serving three years in the U.S. Air Force — during which time he learned to play guitar — Knight studied technical illustration at the University of Alabama but in his spare time began writing songs, and in 1956 formed a rockabilly combo dubbed the Knightmares, signing to the tiny Kit label to release "Bop Boogie to the Blues." The follow-up, "Bring My Cadillac Back," proved a regional hit and was licensed for national distribution by Decca before it was banned from radio on the grounds it was nothing more than a free commercial for Cadillac. Decca next teamed Knight with arranger Ray Ellis for 1957's "Reelin' and Rockin' (Bippin' and Boppin' Over You)." The record attracted little attention, and when the same fate met "Just a Little Bit More" and "Love-A, Love-A, Love-A," the label terminated his contract.

Knight relocated to Hollywood in 1958 in pursuit of a film career that did not materialize. He nevertheless made fast friends with rockabilly great Eddie Cochran, and according to legend was even asked to contribute to Cochran's immortal "Summertime Blues," but fell asleep and did not awake until the song was completed. With the aid of Cochran's girlfriend, the songwriter Sharon Sheeley, Knight began peddling his own original compositions, initially hoping to interest the Everly Brothers in his evocative ballad "Lonesome Town"; teen idol Rick Nelson recorded the tune instead with support from the brilliant guitarist James Burton, and the end result was a Top Ten pop hit in 1958. The Knight-penned B-side "I Got a Feeling" cracked the Top Ten as well. In all, Nelson recorded 21 of his songs, including the million-selling "There'll Never Be Anyone Else But You," "Mighty Good," and "Sweeter Than You." Nelson also wished to cut Knight's "Just Relax," but its writer refused, instead opting to record the song himself for Coral, with Cochran sitting in on guitar. The 1959 single proved a flop, and after the follow-up, "Pretty Little Girl," also went nowhere, Coral cut its losses and dropped Knight from its roster.

Knight wrote "The Wonder of You" for crooner Perry Como, but Como's arranger, Dick Pierce, instead suggested the tune to pop singer Ray Peterson, whose 1959 version was a Top 30 hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the record's fans was Elvis Presley, who in early 1970 added "The Wonder of You" to his stage repertoire. Presley eventually issued it as a single, topping the U.K. charts and scoring a major U.S. hit as well. By that time, Knight was well established as a songwriter, although he'd also continued recording to little avail, with singles for RCA, Chess, and Challenger. In early 1966, Dean Martin recorded "Somewhere There's a Someone," the first of 11 Knight compositions the Rat Packer cut over the next six years. Knight also authored several songs for Martin's pal and Reprise label owner Frank Sinatra, including the big-band ballad "Anytime at All," and in 1965 signed to the label as a solo act, bowing with the single "Man with a Plan." Two years later, Knight issued "I Feel Sick About the Whole Thing," later a cult classic thanks to its grandly psychedelic flip side, "Hallucinations." He also wrote for the Reprise psychedelic act the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band, proving his uncanny ability to master virtually every musical genre.

Knight spent the 1970s tailoring his music to the country market, writing hits for Ernest Ashworth ("A Week in the Country"), Hank Williams, Jr. ("One Night Stands"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("I Don't Want to Be Lonely Tonight"), and Dave & Sugar (the Top Five smash "I'm Gonna Love You"). In 1976, Mickey Gilley topped the country charts with "Don't the Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time," earning Knight the Academy of Country Music's Song of the Year honor. A year later, he signed to Warner Bros. for what would prove his final major-label release, "If Only." In all, Knight earned eight Citation of Achievement honors from the publishing organization BMI, but in 1985 he was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, which greatly limited his efforts in the years to follow. He eventually constructed a home recording studio and in time resumed his long-dormant solo career, self-releasing the LPs The Way I Hear It, Music Is My Woman, and the instrumental Music for Romantic Dreamers through his website. Shortly after publishing his memoirs, A Piece of the Big-Time, Knight died of natural causes on October 12, 2005.

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Thomas Baker Knight, Jr.

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